Cowboys cornerback Jourdan Lewis makes plays. Whether he is jarring it free, picking it off, or scooping it and scoring, Lewis seems to find himself near the football often as any Cowboy defender.
For a defense that has been allergic to football the majority of this millennium, one would think that such a skill would be paramount. However, until a recent injury to cornerback Anthony Brown, Lewis has had a difficult time getting on the field.
Lewis played plenty as a rookie in 2017, playing respectably over 694 defensive snaps. In 2018, Lewis saw his season snap total reduced dramatically to just 93 snaps (still tallying 2 fumble recoveries and an interception). In 2019, Lewis was on pace for just north of 330 defensive snaps before Brown’s injury forced him into the lineup.
So with no drop off in play, ancillary issues, what changed? What could be the explanation for reducing the number of opportunities for a player who is making the most of them? In 2017, Lewis’s rookie season, Matt Eberflus was the team’s passing game coordinator. When Eberflus departed after the season to become the defensive coordinator in Indianapolis, the Cowboys hired Kris Richard to coach defensive backs, and fill the vacancy Eberflus left behind as passing game coordinator. It is a common belief that Richard, who stands a towering 5’11” himself, is married to the idea that cornerbacks need to be lengthy, and taller than 6’0″ to execute the techniques he chooses to employ as a coach.
Seeing Lewis play and play well, only getting an opportunity after injuries forced the hand of the coaching staff illuminated a bigger, longstanding problem in Dallas. For decades, even through multiple coaching regimes, the Dallas Cowboys have been overly specific and detrimentally stubborn about “scheme fits.”
For the longest time, the Cowboys have stuck to very rigid height/weight/trait templates when acquiring talent for certain positions, and only seem to deviate from those requisites when they stumble across a productive player who is an outlier.
Since the end of the Bill Parcells era, the Dallas Cowboys have had a certain archetype for wide receivers. Parcells didn’t seem to be quite as specific. Parcells brought aboard Terry Glenn and drafted fellow sub-six-footers Skyler Green and Patrick Crayton. It seems that the Garrett era was the beginning of the mandate that wideouts be somewhere in the neighborhood of 6’2″, and somewhere between 210-220 lbs. The team traded for Roy Williams, signed Laurent Robinson, drafted Dez Bryant, Manny Johnson, and developed the undrafted Miles Austin. Size, size, size. For years the Cowboys didn’t even have skillset variety within their receiving corps.
Jason Garrett at one point verbally acknowledged the team’s preference regarding wide receiver size. The Dallas Cowboys owned two first-round picks in the 2008 NFL draft. When asked about the prospects of drafting the speedy but diminutive Cal wideout Desean Jackson, an unnamed Cowboys official was quoted as replying “shrimps need not apply.” A team that had for years been terrorized in-division by Santana Moss, and had multiple run-ins with Steve Smith didn’t think Desean Jackson was useful. If that team spends a 2008 1st round selection on Desean Jackson instead of Felix Jones or Mike Jenkins, it almost certainly does not trade away a 2009 first-rounder for Roy Williams. You probably get a happier Terrell Owens, facing more favorable coverage, you aren’t without ammunition during what became a historically bad 2009 draft, the Eagles don’t have Desean Jackson to torture your secondary, and down the rabbit hole, we go.
The team basically discovered the value of smaller quicker receivers by accident. In 2012 the team brought an undrafted Cole Beasley on board, basically as a camp body. Standing only 5’8″, Beasley’s elite quickness and change of direction skills gave the Cowboys and up-close look every day at what such a unique set of physical skills can do for an offense. The rest is history. Beasley played 7 seasons in Dallas and was an integral part of the offense. Since Beasley’s emergence, the Cowboys at least show a willingness to acquire smaller, quicker players at the position, drafting Ryan Switzer and signing guys like Tavon Austin and Randall Cobb.
Probably the most maddening Cowboys player preference template for fans is at defensive tackle. Rod Marinelli’s specificity about defensive tackles is borderline OCD. His “1 technique” tackles need to somewhere just north of 300 lbs., but not too heavy, because they need to be quick in his one-gap scheme. It’s really hard to understand why a rare, 330 lb. man with equal quickness wouldn’t be useful to Marinelli, but alright. Coaches have preferences.
The template for a Rod Marinelli 3 technique is where realism leaves the room. Marinelli is looking for a guy between 280 and 295 lbs. No shorter than 6’2″ but not a super tall guy taller than about 6’4″. Adequate arm length, elite first-step quickness, strength, etc. That sounds like a heck of a player, but there probably aren’t 20 guys on earth that fit that criterion on an NFL standard. Aaron Donald’s are not found on the shelf at every corner store.
Ironically, the best season by a 3 technique in the Marinelli era came from the angular 6’5″ Jason Hatcher, whom Marinelli was forced to play out of a lack of options. The Cowboys were still transitioning from a 3-4, where Hatcher had played mostly as a 5 technique. In 2013, Marinelli’s first year with the team Hatcher notched 11 sacks as a patchwork piece of a thrown together defensive line. Another accident. No Cowboy interior defender has come close since. More recently the Cowboys found success with the 6’7″ David Irving at the position. Nonetheless, the search for the next Warren Sapp continues.
Given the Cowboys’ ultra-specific criteria for defensive tackles, J.J. Watt would not be a fit. Hall of Famer to be Vince Wilfork would not be a fit. Plus-sized, nimble freaks of nature like Haloti Ngata and Dontari Poe would not have been considered. Current players like Vita Vea, Terrance Knighton, and Damon Harrison would not be fits. When Pro Bowlers and Hall of Famers are guys you wouldn’t consider for your scheme, you need to change your scheme.
If you want to double down on being angry, consider this. Other coaches, from the same coaching tree, who learned this defense the same way, have not shared this same specificity about the defensive tackle position. In 2008, Leslie Frazier (friend of Marinelli, Lovie Smith coaching tree) led a top defense in Minnesota. Frazier employed the duo of Kevin and Pat Williams (both 320 lbs +) at the two defensive tackle spots, and “The Williams Wall” became the backbone of the defense.
The best coaches are able to fit the scheme to talent. In 2013, then New York Jets coach Rex Ryan, a child of the 3-4 drafted DT Sheldon Richardson, a perceived 4-3 only fit. The move baffled many draftniks, but Rex Ryan found a way to make Richardson a useful piece on a top unit. In 2014 St. Louis Rams drafted Aaron Donald to play 3 technique in a 4-3. In 2017, legendary defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, a 3-4 guy took over the Rams defense. that season, a perceived 4-3 only guy, Donald won his first of consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards.
Talent acquisition is a tough enough task on its own. It’s tougher when you start paring down the talent pool for fit. Let’s say there are 500 draft-eligible prospects in a given year. Team A prioritizes scheme. Team B wants to first find talented players then bend the scheme to fit. Team A, after crossing off names that don’t fit their specifics, is left with 250 players who meet criteria. Team B still has 500 players to choose from. Which team will likely build a contender level roster faster?
If you can ball you can ball. Everyone would love a pair of 6’2″ cornerbacks who can contest high throws to big wideouts, but it’s hard enough to first find guys who can stay near enough to the receiver to contest those throws. A defensive lineman who can’t be blocked because he is massive and technically refined needs to be as valuable as a guy who can’t be blocked because of his first step. A wideout who is open because he is speedy isn’t any less open than a wideout who is open because he is big.
Cowboys fans should be hoping that Jourdan Lewis’ spurt of success helps shake the Cowboys thinking about specificity and “fit” just the smallest bit. Get talented players on the roster, and get the talented players already on the roster on the field. Bend the scheme to fit.